5 Authors And Their Inspiring Rags To Riches Journey

Today is Be a Millionaire Day, an unofficial holiday to honor the idea of joining the top 1 percent. Here are some authors who became wealthy despite the odds.

Author's Corner Book Culture Featured Authors On This Day
Man writing in notebook at desk, coins scattered in front

It’s far from easy to make a living off of writing books, let alone become a highly successful author. However, a number of authors have achieved this, despite having meager resources at the start. Since today is Be a Millionaire Day, we’re bringing you five stories of authors who struck it rich doing something they loved: telling stories.

1. John R. Erickson

John R. Erickson
Image via Wikimedia

John R. Erickson is a cowboy-turned-author, and his story is truly inspirational. His book series Hank the Cowdog, one of the most successful children’s book series and among the longest-running on audio, was first published from his own garage in 1982. That’s right—he became self-published before the internet was a thing.

No one else was willing to publish his books at the time, and after 15 years of pursuing his craft and getting enough rejection slips to cover his entire office, he decided, “I didn’t need the approval of editors or agents in New York … I needed readers.”

His self-publishing venture was a last resort. He had managed to support his family through various means such as bartending, working odd jobs, and cowboying, but his time was almost up: A cattle market crash had already ended his cowboy career, and he was running out of cash. Luckily, his $2,000 bank loan to found Maverick Books paid off. His first print run of The Devil in Texas and Other Cowboy Tales sold out quickly, and since then, he has sold over 9.5 million copies of his books.

2. Harper Lee

Harper Lee
Image via Truman Capote

The cultural impact of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird cannot be overstated, and neither can the success she received from her work. But she hardly started out wealthy. In a 1964 interview, she said regarding her childhood, “We didn’t have much money. Nobody had any money. We didn’t have toys, nothing was done for us, so the result was that we lived in our imagination most of the time.”

Perhaps she would have made a fine living as a lawyer, having previously enrolled in the University of Alabama’s law program, but she dropped out to pursue her dreams as a writer. Several years of struggle followed as she worked at an airline with no expectations of holidays off. Fortune struck one Christmas when her friends Michael and Joy Brown gifted her a year’s worth of money to live off of while focusing on writing full-time.

There was an envelope on the tree, addressed to me. I opened it and read: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”

Clearly, she made the most of it, as aside from To Kill a Mockingbird becoming a cultural phenomenon, it has sold over 40 million copies and made over $3 million per year. For her, all it took was one book.

3. Nicholas Sparks

Nicholas Sparks
Image via Drew W. Barker

Nicholas Sparks is an American novelist, screenwriter, and producer best known for his romance novel The Notebook, one of sixteen Sparks books that became #1 New York Times bestsellers. In fact, every single one of his books has been a New York Times and international bestseller, and eleven of them have been made into major motion pictures. Need we say more?

His journey to success was far from smooth, though. His first two novels went unpublished, and he had to work as a waiter, real estate appraiser, and telemarketer to make ends meet. Two career changes later, and with no future success as a writer in sight, he gave himself an ultimatum: get published within three more books, or move on.

Things more than worked out for him, because his next manuscript was The Notebook. It netted him an agent, a book deal, and a $1 million advance for the film rights—all within half a year.

4. Laura Ingalls Wilder

Laura Ingalls Wilder
Image via Wikimedia

You might know that much of the Little House series, widely successful and long-loved children’s classics, is based on Wilder’s own life experiences growing up as a pioneer. That includes the poverty depicted in her books. Her father would forego food for himself because the family didn’t have enough to eat. Sometimes Wilder and her sisters could not attend school because they didn’t have the clothes to endure the cold weather. With legions of natural disasters to destroy their crops, financial security remained out of reach.

Her misfortunes continued in adulthood. A fire burned down the home Wilder shared with her husband as well as their barn, with grain and hay inside. They also lost wheat crops to drought and hail, not to mention their newborn son died. And after they had finally achieved financial stability, the Stock Market Crash of 1929 wiped out most of their life savings.

But everything changed when Wilder started publishing Little House. She became a national celebrity by the end of the series, set for life in old age. Not too shabby for an author who debuted at age 64.

5. Stephen King

Stephen King
Image via Pinguino Kolb

We’ll end with the King of Horror himself, the mind behind The Shining, The Stand, and many more. These days, he’s one of the richest authors in the world, but back in 1971, he was scraping by on earnings from industrial laundry work and his wife’s savings. He borrowed her typewriter from college to write short stories for men’s magazines, unable to afford one for himself.

Ultimately, it was not his short stories that jumpstarted his writing career, but the novel Carrie, a story he threw away before his wife fished it out of the trash. It netted him a $2,500 advance from Doubleday Publishing, and later, $200,000 from Signet Books for the paperback rights. And, well, the rest is history.

Interested in becoming a millionaire yourself? Click here to read about 7 books by female entrepreneurs for the aspiring businesswoman.